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Abraham and Moral Leadership – Rosh Hashana

September 19, 2020

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In the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashana, I like to ask people to share their questions about the texts we read on the High Holy Days. Without a doubt, the one that causes us the most trouble is the Binding of Isaac, which we read this morning.

 “And so it was that, after these events, God put Abraham to a test. And God said to him: Abraham! And he said, Hineini, Here I am. And God said, Come, take your son, your only one, who you love—Isaac—and go forth to the land of Moriah, to offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I will show you” (Genesis 22:1-2).

After waiting his entire life to parent a child with his beloved Sarah, God asks Abraham to make the ultimate sacrifice. In response, Abraham says…nothing. He rises the next morning, gathers the necessary supplies, and leads his beloved Isaac in an excruciatingly slow journey toward Mount Moriah. He prepares an altar, binds his son on top of it, and raises the knife overhead, before God intervenes:

“And a messenger of Adonai called to him from heaven, saying, Abraham! Abraham! And he said, Hineini, here I am. And the messenger said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy; do nothing to him—for now I know you are in awe of God, since you would not deny Me your son, your only one” (Genesis 22: 11-12).

The knife never pierces Isaac’s throat. But year after year, this story gets under our skin. Why would God ask Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac? And why would Abraham, a loving father, agree to such a sacrifice? Even though God ultimately stops Abraham from slaughtering Isaac, many of us are uncomfortable with even the suggestion of child sacrifice as a test of faith. Nowadays, we might not even be comfortable with the animal sacrifice that occurs in its place.

On a normal Shabbat, we might be content to wrestle with this passage as we would any other complex text in the Torah. But why read this morally complicated story on one of the most important days in the Jewish calendar? And what might we take from it, this year of all years?

This has not always been the Rosh Hashana reading. Many congregations read the story of Isaac’s miraculous birth (Genesis 21, Tosefta 3:5-8), which fits the theme of Rosh Hashana as Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembrance. In our prayers, we implore God zochreinu “remember us,” bless us with another year of life. In both the Torah and haftarah readings, a child is born only after God “remembers” the barren heroine and opens her womb: Sarah gives birth to Isaac; Hannah gives birth to Samuel.

Later, the rabbis add the Binding of Isaac to the repertoire, connecting it to the idea of Rosh Hashana as Yom HaDin, The Day of Judgment, on which the Book of Life is opened and our verdict written within. The Talmud suggests we read this story “in order to mention the merit of the binding of Isaac on the day of God’s judgment” (Megillah 31a).

The rabbis imagine that, at that moment atop Mount Moriah, Abraham said to God: “It was in my heart, yesterday, to remind You that You told me that Isaac would be my legacy, when You said to me: Take him for a burnt-offering. But I restrained myself and did not challenge You. Therefore, when Isaac’s descendants sin and are being oppressed, recall the binding of Isaac, reckon it as if his ashes were piled upon the altar, and pardon them and release them from their anguish” (Midrash Tanhuma 23:8).

But this doesn’t answer our question: How can we see Abraham’s willingness to slaughter his son as a sign of his merit? Why use this guy as our character reference?

And if we can’t answer this question to our satisfaction, where else might we turn for inspiration on this sacred day? What is it that we need from our Torah reading right now? Is it the hope and creativity of birth, the rewards for loyalty and perfect faith, the promise of forgiveness and blessing, or something else entirely?

The answer might vary according to where we find ourselves at the beginning of any given year. But given where we are as this year begins, I am struck by the suggestion of Rabbi Ellen Lippman, that the problem with this story is that it is “bereft of a kind of moral leadership that we desperately [need] in our world” (Machzor: Challenge and Change, Volume 2, p. 24).

The real problem with the Binding of Isaac is that it offers us a moral exemplar that doesn’t exemplify our morals. “What we need now to face the terrifying world,” Rabbi Lippman says, “is a story of moral courage, of protest, and of hope, not one of submission to God, who lays down an impossible command” (Machzor: Challenge and Change, Volume 2, p. 24).

While our biblical ancestors are by no means perfect, there is also no shortage of moral courage in our sacred story: Both Hebrew and Egyptian women conspire to defy Pharaoh’s harsh decree to save Hebrew children. The daughters of Zelophechad stand up to demand their rightful inheritance. Joshua and Caleb provide hope and optimism to the Israelites as they prepare to enter the Promised Land. Joseph forgives his brothers for what is, by most measures, unforgiveable. And in the spirit of these holy days, characters like Judah, Moses, and Jonah repeatedly mess up, ‘fess up, and try again.

Even Abraham, at other moments in our sacred narrative, provides a model of moral courage that we might aspire to today. Sometimes, he does this with his signature “perfect faith,” leaving his home to follow God without a word of protest or questioning. But there is one place where he does not obey silently: when God announces the plan to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorroh.

“Abraham then came forward and said… ‘Suppose there are fifty innocent in the city—will You indeed sweep away the place, and not spare it for the sake of the fifty righteous who are in its midst? Far be it from You to do such a thing, killing righteous and wicked alike… Must not the Judge of all the earth do justly?”(Genesis 18: 23-25).

Abraham shows moral courage here in several ways: He shows care and concern for the righteous, even though God’s plan does not impact him personally. He speaks truth to power, demanding that even God be held accountable for doing what is right and just.

And, ultimately, he “reaches across the aisle” and pursues a compromise with God. In response to Abraham’s fierce negotiations, God agrees to spare the cities, even if only ten righteous people are found there. Unfortunately, even this quota is not met. The cities are destroyed.

Even this most sacred relationship, with its most uneven balance of power, God does not require blind obedience from Abraham. God listens and considers. In this Abraham, who speaks up for the voiceless and demands justice from the Ultimate Judge, we see a model of moral courage, one that we so desperately need right now.

This example of moral courage is particularly stark in contrast to the alleged crimes of these doomed cities. The plain text attributes Sodom’s fate to the perversion and mob mentality of its inhabitants, who attempt an assault on two strangers staying in the home of Abraham’s nephew, Lot. But the rabbis suggest that the people of Sodom didn’t come after the strangers because of their depravity, but because of their unwillingness to share their.

One might think that miserliness comes from a place of scarcity. But the rabbis tell us that Sodom possessed such great wealth that gold flakes clung to the roots of their vegetables. They weren’t stingy because they had too little, but because they had too much!

Rather than feel blessed by their abundance, they began to fear that foreigners would take what was rightfully theirs, saying: “We live in peace and plenty…What need have we to look after wayfarers, who come to us only to deprive us?”

So the people of Sodom developed an elaborate anti-wayfarer campaign. They charged people four zuzim to cross the bridge into their town, and eight to evade the toll by wading through a nearby river. If a stranger made it into town and found a place to lodge, the innkeeper would cut them or stretch them to fit the bed they slept in. If they begged in the street, people would give them coins, but forbid anyone to sell them food. When the stranger inevitably died, the people would retrieve their money from the stranger’s pockets.

Their animosity was not reserved for the stranger. They also refused to feed the hungry amongst themselves, even to the point of torturing those who took pity on the vulnerable.

The rabbis explain that God’s punishment of Sodom is a response to the outcry of Lot’s daughter, who was burned alive for secretly sustaining an impoverished person. As she dies, she cries out: “God of the universe … exact justice and judgment in my behalf” (BOL 36:30-32).

The price of Sodom’s greed was destruction. Not because of the isolated actions of individuals, but because, according to Rabbi Eliezar, “wickedness became public policy endorsed and approved by the authorities” (PDRE 25, EC 105).

But even with all the cruelty emanating from these cities, Abraham stands up against their destruction. Not because their behavior does not warrant punishment, but because there might still, even after all this, be people in the land who are righteous, and deserve to be spared. Or, we might go a little further and say, there could still be righteousness found amongst the inhabitants of these cities, and for that the entirety of their citizenship deserves another chance.

Abraham’s statement of moral courage is that even a flawed society is worth saving, for the sake of those who might still do good.

Four years ago, I preached about this story in anticipation of the 2016 election. The community I served was divided, and I was deeply concerned about the anti-immigrant rhetoric in our national discourse, especially towards the Latinx and Muslim populations.

Indeed, in the last few years we have heard echoes of these Sodom stories in our nation’s treatment of immigrants and refugees, turned away at the border or detained in inhumane conditions. Even in our land of plenty, we could not share with the foreigner.

This callous indifference towards human lives has extended to our own citizens and residents. At nearly every opportunity, our nation has prioritized the desires of the wealthy and powerful over the needs of the poor and the vulnerable.

Our economic policies deny workers fair wages and the most basic support in the name of profits and cheap goods. We leave working families struggling to make ends meet, providing little help in the way of childcare, loan forgiveness, rent or mortgage relief, and pay equity.

Our criminal justice system disproportionately punishes poor people and people of color, in the name of “law and order.” And when people rise up to protest against this injustice, armed troops and unregulated militias are deployed to silence and suppress them. People of color are killed going about their everyday lives, while the extremist actions of white supremacists are left unchecked in the name of civil liberties.

Our leaders deny science and demand that schools and businesses open in unsafe conditions, without providing the necessary guidance or resources, in the name of saving our economy from ruin that was entirely preventable.

The pandemic has exacerbated problems that we already knew were there. And it exposed an even bigger problem at the root of it all. We, as a nation, have decided that we value our personal freedom, autonomy, and even our comfort, over our responsibility for the health and safety of our fellow human beings. We have decided that sacrificing human lives is sometimes just the cost of doing business. We have decided to sweep away the righteous with the wicked.

It would not be unreasonable to be so disgusted right now that we throw up our hands and declare that the American experiment is over. But apathy is not an option for us, as Jews or as Americans, because every election is a referendum on the American Dream.

And this election is an opportunity to stand up, as Abraham did, and say that we still believe that we as a nation are capable of kindness, compassion, and fairness. We are still capable of providing for all people from our nation’s great abundance. We are still committed to protecting the vulnerable, and to pursuing liberty and justice for all. We still “hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [people] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Every election is an opportunity to say what we are, and are not, willing to sacrifice as a nation.

And this election is an opportunity to say that we are not willing to sacrifice the health and safety of school children, senior citizens, essential workers, and those with chronic conditions or disabilities.

We are not willing to sacrifice the constitutional rights, and ultimately the lives, of those who are black, indigenous, or people of color; those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender; those who are poor and those who are in prison and those who are not yet citizens.

We are not willing to sacrifice the opportunities that this nation promised to our ancestors, a promise we can only fulfill by ensuring universal access to health care, education, meaningful employment, a living wage, and a social safety net.

This election is also an opportunity to say what we are willing to sacrifice, in the name of creating a society that lives up to our highest ideals.

We are willing to sacrifice our own comfort and convenience to keep our friends and neighbors and the strangers in our midst safe from harm.

We are willing to sacrifice our own pride so that we might listen to the pain of those in our community who are oppressed, and not turn away from them.

We are willing to examine our own words and behavior, and how we have benefited from our own privileged positions in this system. We are willing to examine how our own actions have affected our economy and our environment. We are willing to accept the great responsibility that comes with our power.

We are willing to sacrifice some of our own resources, to make sure that everyone in our society has what they need to survive, and thrive, no matter where they came from, and even when our world is beset by plagues of biblical proportions. We, like Abraham, are willing to step out of our place to speak up for what is right.

It is hard for us to identify with Abraham standing atop Mt. Moriah. But each time God calls out to him—first to make the sacrifice and later to stop it—Abraham does one thing right. He answers, “Hineini, here I am,” the biblical code word for a willingness to show up, step up, and, sometimes, to make sacrifices.

In the coming weeks, we will be called upon to show up and say hineini in a multitude of ways: We have been called upon by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism to be a 100% voting congregation and to help out with its non-partisan Civic Engagement Campaign. We are called upon to vote in this election, and to help others to vote by disseminating accurate information, and helping people get to the polls.

We are called to choose leaders up and down the ballot who can be exemplars of moral leadership, and to hold these leaders accountable when they fail or fall short of our vision. We will be called on to stand up and speak out, to echo Abraham’s claim that there is the potential for righteousness in our nation, that there is something about our nation that is worth saving, and that we are not willing to stand by and watch it be destroyed.

Poet Jessica Greenbaum suggests that, “The phrase ‘here I am’ could encapsulate our metaphorical annual rebirth as Jews, at the head of the year, but it’s a difficult rebirth. We have to travel through this terrifying story and come out saying, ‘Here I am’” (Machzor: Challenge and Change, Volume 2, p. 18).

None of the narratives we read at this season are easy. Neither is the story we are living right now. But perhaps wrestling with these texts for thousands of years is what makes us strong enough to face the challenges of our own time. May we enter this year with compassion and moral courage, and may we find the strength within ourselves to say hineini and to take part in building a better world.

 

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz